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Archive for May, 2010

If there is a single image of Buenos Aires before you actually get there, that would seem to overshadow everything else about the city, it is tango. “Don’t miss going for a tango show when you are in Buenos Aires”, urged my son, who had been there before, “They also teach you to tango, so you can enjoy the fun”. A friend of his who had also been there sighed about the “drop-dead gorgeous women” of that city, and told me how jealous he felt that it was I who was going and not he! Both the young men went into a trance when talking about their memorable time there – the liveliness of the city, its friendly people, the active night life….

Permanently in sneakers and trousers due to still-healing fractures to my feet, I couldn’t imagine myself tangoing in Buenos Aires.  Particularly, since the image of tango (or what is generically known as ‘Latin American Dance’ outside of Latin America) that I had was inseparable from the image of seductive and nubile women in impossibly high heels and unbelievably minute dresses, effortlessly executing impossibly difficult dance steps! But I knew that I wasn’t going to miss watching a tango show for anything in the world.

When I actually got to Buenos Aires, I realized that signaturing the city with tango (and fun) alone – or gorgeous women – was doing it injustice. Of course, the friendly people with their cosmopolitan outlook and pride in their city, whose standards of hospitality could give Arabs and Indians a run for their money, make one feel like a very specially invited guest. And of course, there are olive-skinned beauties whichever way you look. And of course, it is the tango capital of the world, no doubt about that. On my very first evening in Buenos Aires, I met a very senior American academic from New York who told me that she was spending the last four months of her sabbatical year there – the city she said she feels happiest in – learning tango and Spanish! There is tango everywhere – for straights and queers; in open-air plazas; in restaurants in the old district of La Boca, where tango shows are offered as an add-on; everyday tango nights in traditional tango restaurants (‘tangerias’) to which locals flock, the interiors embellished with old fashioned wrought iron work, beveled glass and mirrors, and large dance floors; tango seminars, networks, workshops, magazines and maps, and online communities; tango classes for visiting tourists…the options are endless.

Tango show at San Telmo

The public squares and gardens come vibrantly alive in the evenings, and during weekends craft shops and flea markets sprout, in sudden but orderly rows, all along these green spaces. At several squares and plazas, particularly in the old quarters of San Telmo and La Boca (the former genteel and bohemian, the latter colourful, working class, and  along the docks) – both now tourist hubs, music strikes up and tango performances have audiences sitting around watching graceful dancers display their formidable skills, with the hat being passed around at the end of the show for contributions.

Street art in La Boca

Street in La Boca

On my first night there, I was taken out by my local hosts to a tangeria. When we – a group of seven women with different coloured skins – settled ourselves in at our table, it was around 10.30 p.m., and there was just a handful of couples dancing to recorded music. A couple of single middle aged men in tuxedos, and two single women (in dance attire) – both also on the wrong side of middle age – completed the number. Two of the women in our group – one of them our host, and the other, the visiting American academic, both mad about tango – were also appropriately dressed for dancing. There followed a nuanced drama in which the two single men needed to be attracted to try out the single women as partners. Apparently, a woman needs to be a good dancer for a man to want to dance with her. But she needs a chance to show off her skills! Well, both the women in our group received invitations to dance…And so did the other two singles…The American colleague tells me that, surprisingly for a dance form that is supposed to be all about gender and seduction, tango is actually a liberating social space, particularly for a single woman. You can visit any tango bar as a single woman – in Argentina or in the U.S. – and all that you need to carry you forward through the evening is your desire to dance, and willingness to wait it out until you get a chance to display your skills…

By 12.30 the large hall was full of people. As if on cue, a silver haired man in a tuxedo and a deep baritone stepped to the head of the room, a younger man with an instrument that looked like an accordion materialized, and soon live music was flowing out fast and furious, and most people were on the floor dancing, while the rest of us in our group sat and passed wise judgements on the skills of the dancers. Suddenly, the space on the dance floor cleared, and a very young and handsome couple, in the trademark dark-striped suit and black charmingly provocative tango dress, respectively, stepped into the centre, and for the next hour or so we were treated to the most fantastic and fast paced dancing skills that we had hoped to see. When we left, tired and jet lagged, the evening of dancing had just begun for the citizens of Buenos Aires. In the days that I was in the city, I was to encounter tango at several places, including open air dancing in squares, and dancing sponsored by restaurants in La Boca, the original quay-side scene where tango was invented, by the women of the bordellos into whose arms the poor Italian and Spanish immigrants arriving by boat in the ‘new land of opportunity’ flocked…

The last thing I did before I left Buenos Aires was to take my first and only very enjoyable  tango lesson in the tango studio of my hotel, from a lovely and kind instructor who taught me some basic steps with some twists and turns and a few milonga steps, and kept saying “very good, very good” to my clumsy attempts in my sneakers, and made me feel nice!

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Cataratas del Iguazu

A telegram in Paul Reps’ book Zen Telegrams goes: “Moth caressing my cheek… could be you…” .

I felt the exquisite tenderness of this metaphor for the first time last week at the Iguazu Falls (Cataratas del Iguazu in Spanish) in Argentina. As I paused on the catwalk over the mighty cataratas to consult my map of the Falls, even as the golden waters – the earth in the region is a deep red, which might be the source of the golden-red colour of the waters – roared on either side of me in their rush to plunge over the hillside into a steep drop, a lemon yellow butterfly came and rested on my hand, tentatively at first, then stayed on to explore… caress… ever so gently… While I held my beath not daring to move, it continued to sit fearlessly, as if lost in thought. For a few seconds it looked this way and that, nibbled a little again, and then flew away slowly over the waters.

At that  moment I experienced an epiphany.  It is not that the butterfly mistook my brown hand for a flower;  what attracted it was probably the green colour of the flier in my hand.  The butterfly must have thought that it was an extension of the dense tropical forest all around us. But for me, that little mistaken landing powerfully epitomized the unity of opposites that only nature has the imagination to sustain: everywhere in Iguazu, fragile, silent, and luminously beautiful butterflies fly convivially over one of the most massive, thunderous and powerful waterfalls in the world.

Walking on golden waters

'Walking on waters'

If the encounter with the yellow butterfly remains one of my frozen-in-time memories of the Falls, another was the sight of two black-and-orange chameleons doing a silent courtship dance on a tree trunk at the edge of one of Iguazu’s 275 massive waterfalls. I was just finishing the upper circuit of the Falls where, after you climb up steps and the ramps that take you to the top of the Falls, you get to literally stand on top of the water (as in the picture above), and feel it rushing out from one side of you, rush under your feet and down the steep precipice on the other side. I was on a rocky island at the end of one section of the Falls, and on either side of the island water was crashing down with a fearsome roar, relentlessly flattening clumps of tall bright green grass that grew bravely on the rocks below – they tried repeatedly to stand up only to be bludgeoned back every time – and throwing up a fine spray of mist that clouded my glasses. Bushy trees were growing tenaciously out of the rocks at all angles, their trunks and leaves moist from the spray.  Butterflies were delicately flitting about their foliage, just out of reach of the water. A giant half rainbow was positioned over the spray mist, caused by the sun shining through the water. It was in the midst of this glorious spectacle that, on one of the trees that was growing inches away from the handrail of the catwalk,  the chameleons were locked in embrace: oblivious to either the drama of the waters or the movement of visitors on the viewing bridge… completely lost in their own world, taking their own time while speaking a language universal in its meaning.

A third unforgettable moment was when I decided to do the lower circuit, using the steep route that I had avoided the day before. This consisted of steps and ramps that descended down to the base of the Falls right down to the river and then gradually rose above the river, climbing along the forested hillside to afford panoramic views of the Falls from a distance. Ramps drenched in spray connected walkers from one waterfall to the other, making the experience of nature as participatory as one could possibly imagine. Each time you crossed one of those ramps, you stood exposed, since there was only a handrail to separate you from the cascading water. Even as I made one such crossing at the bottom of one of the big Falls and felt the spray shower over me, the sun came out and shone on the spray and there were a myriad rainbows before my eyes. It was absolutely magical.

Rainbow over the falls

And of course, once you move back from being touched directly by the falling spray, and walk up though the forest to view the Falls from a distance, you have the butterflies for company : butterflies of every conceivable colour and design – neon blue and purple, lime green and black, bright yellow, orange and black, yellow and white, polka dots, zig-zag patterns…the varieties are endless. And everywhere you look, you encounter virgin sub-tropical forest, protected by national parks on both the Argentinian and Brazilian sides: giant trees of bewildering variety (in Latin America even familiar tropical trees seem to have larger-than-life leaves); creepers spreading wildly forming ropes and canopies making the forest look like a movie set straight out of Tarzan or Anaconda; orchids, lilies, begonias, palms, bamboos, ferns, bromeliads; and rich wildlife of tapirs, giant ant eaters, howler monkeys, jaguars and pumas, of which only the ant eaters are ubiquitous, playful and friendly, following tourists around to pick up ice creams, sandwiches and chips…

The Iguazu Falls consist of 275 individual cascades, along a rim that is 2.7 km long, created by a volcanic eruption that left open a crack in the interleaved layers of sandstone and basalt. The highest section of the falls – at the Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat) – drops 270 feet (around 82 meters) into the Iguazu river, the force of the cascade creating a pillar of mist that rises between 30 meters (98 feet) an 150 meters (492 feet) into the sky. The volcanic fault has created several rocky islands that break up the falls into discrete cascades (hence 275) , but when the flow is at its peak, many of these individual falls coalesce.

Far bigger than Niagara (more than twice as wide, with a much greater volume of water) and higher, the Iguazu are second only to the Victoria Falls in South Africa, which is the largest curtain of water in the world, as well as the highest, creating mist that rises 300 meters (984 feet) above the ground). But the Victoria Falls, being a single waterfall is too immense to directly experience.

What makes Iguazu at Argentina  the most beautiful and spectacular falls in the world (it can also be viewed from the Brazilian side, but more as a panorama and not in this participatory way) is that it affords a more direct experience, due to several factors:  its discrete nature (each of the individual Falls can be viewed up close), its tropical forest setting which, too, can be experienced while visiting the Falls, better views from the ramps and walkways that take the visitor right into, above and below the Falls, and at one point – the Devil’s Throat -, the feeling of being in the midst of three walls of water cascading down the U shape of the gorge. One can also take a boat ride on the Iguazu river right up to the base of the Falls.  On the days that I was there, access to the Devil’s Throat had been closed to the public: the heavy rains in Brazil during the preceding fortnight had caused the water levels to rise so dramatically that the catwalks over the Devil’s Throat were submerged ;  the increase in the volume of water in the Falls at the Devil’s Throat  was evident in the fact that the visibility of that section of the Falls, from a distance, was shrouded by a tall pillar of mist that rose to join the clouds…

Apart from the thrilling experience of coming up close to the powerful waters and the tropical forest,  Iguazu gives the visitor the grand feeling of being on a river that is born in one country (Brazil),  has travelled 1200 kms receiving water from many sources along the way, and empties itself into a canyon in another country (Argentina).   Although over two thirds of the Falls are within Agentina, Iguazu is positioned at the confluence of three countries of Latin America –  Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay – and is a part of the folklore of all three.   As the Guarani Indian language (from which it takes its name) describes it, it is indeed the “Great Waters”.

anteater

lone flower blooming on the hillside

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Chidambaram

Chidambaram

“Did the Dikshitars show you the Chidambara Rahasiyam? Did they explain the various symbolisms?” asked my mother anxiously, when I phoned her after our return from our trip. Knowing that I am not the religious sort, nor a customary temple goer, she wanted to be assured that I had found my trip to the Chidambaram temple to be an intellectually and spiritually rewarding experience.

When my son and I traveled to Chidambaram as a part of touching base with our roots, we had been aware of a few things.  Like most persons informed about south Indian classical dance, we knew that when you think dance, you think  Siva-Nataraja (the Lord of Dance).   And when you think Nataraja, you think Chidambaram.   Further, that Chidambaram  is perhaps the only temple in the world where Siva is given anthropomorphic form (whereas nearly everywhere else he is worshipped in the symbolic form of the lingam). We had also recently been charmed by the contemporary aesthetic appeal of the Thevarams – hymns to Siva composed at the Chidambaram temple by the ancient Tamil poets, the Nayanmars -, through the music of Susheela Raman, the Tamil singer with a Western musical sensibility, who makes traditional south Indian classical music sound cool.

However, our trip to Chidambaram had made us aware of symbolic dimensions to the temple’s architecture and iconography that went beyond the celebration of the arts, and I was able to assure my mother that our host and guide around the temple, Venkatesa Dikshitar, had given us an excellent commentary on the various symbolisms and thereby deepened our understanding of Chidambaram.

As we entered the temple, Venkatesa Dikshitar asked us to observe how we were moving steadily down (and not up) towards the presiding deity. He also drew our attention to the wide tier of broadly-spaced short steps covering this downward incline, down which we walked on our journey, from the outer open-to-the-sky prakara and through a series of prakaras, to the inner sanctum which, alone, rises above the ground into a podium-like canopy.

He explained that the gentle incline all the way down to the heart of the temple, and beyond to the Sivaganga temple tank, is an ancient water harvesting feature, with a network of concealed channels throughout the prakaras that direct rain water falling onto the outer courtyard and outer-most open prakara, to the Sivaganga tank at the other end (temple tanks are an accessory of every south Indian temple). To this day, these channels are kept clean and unclogged. As a result of this regular recharge, the Sivaganga tank doubles up as a reservoir for the temple, ensuring that the temple has never faced water shortages, either for its poojas or its maintenance. The gentle, easy-to-navigate steps, in turn, are designed to facilitate access for both toddlers and the aged and disabled.  We were amazed by the very contemporary and progressive environmental and social orientation of these two ancient architectural features.

The prakaras in a typical south Indian temple are the wide, hall-like corridors, designed in squares, that serially enclose the inner sanctum. And the worshipper must traverse these prakaras in order to reach the inner sanctum. We learnt that the Chidambaram temple has five successive prakaras, that symbolically correspond to the five kosas (sheaths) of human existence: the material body, the breath, thoughts, the intellect and, finally, bliss (which is the symbolised by the inner sanctum). The journey through the successive prakaras to the inner sanctum – from the gross to the subtle – is designed to heighten  the worshipper’s state of awareness of the nature of her/his spiritual journey.

Gold canopied sanctum

The inner sanctum itself, housing the icon of Nataraja, has a golden canopy consisting of 26,000 gold leaves, that symbolically correspond to the total number of daily breaths taken by an average human body. The leaves are held in place over the wooden base of the ceiling by 72,000 gold screws; these correspond to the total number of nadis (energy channels) in the human body. And so on… the architecture is replete with such symbolism.

Siva Nataraja (at the CERN, Geneva)

In the inner sanctum at Chidambaram, Siva is Nataraja – the perfectly-proportioned and sensuously beautiful Lord of Dance, arrestingly poised in the most iconic stance ever, the Ananda Tandava or ‘Cosmic Dance of Bliss’. To his left is his consort Sivakami (“Beloved of Siva”). Uniquely, in this anthropomorphic form, Siva symbolises the unceasing rhythm of the cosmos (the drum in one hand); the throbbing dialectic of destruction and regeneration (the ball of fire in another hand); and the supreme goal of all sentient life, which is to rise above ignorance and arrogance in the quest for the larger picture, namely, enlightenment ( symbolized by the demon of ignorance crushed under one foot, with the other foot rising above it all). The position of the two front hands indicate both benediction and the protection from fear.

Siva in Chidambaram (chit = consciousness/wisdom, ambaram = space/universe) is also symbolic of the ‘universe of consciousness’  that is inherent in every one of us, but of which we remain unaware, i.e., our inseparability from everything that constitutes the universe. The iconography of Nataraja, set within the circle of fire, is seen by one school of particle physicists – notably led by the American new age scientist Fritjof Capra – to be uniquely representational of the dynamic nature of the universe as interconnected, moving, vibrating and dancing;  suggesting continuities between developments in quantum physics and the spiritual insights offered by ancient Eastern wisdoms. To quote from Capra,  “The Wave Structure of Matter Explains the Atomic Structure of Matter. The ‘Particle’ as the Wave-Center of a Spherical Standing Wave in Space explains the cosmic dance of Nataraja…Modern physics has shown that the rhythm of creation and destruction is not only manifest in the turn of the seasons and in the birth and death of all living creatures, but is also the very essence of inorganic matter,” and that, “For the modern physicists, then, Shiva’s dance is the dance of subatomic matter.” (Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics, 1975).

In addition to being the archetypal temple (the name Chidambaram itself is co-terminus with the Tamil word ‘kovil ‘ which means a place of worship), Chidambaram is thus also the road to freedom from conventional forms of worship.  In Chidambaram, Siva-Nataraja is uniquely worshipped in his “essence” –  what has been known for centuries as the “Chidambara Rahasiyam”. This rahasiyam (essence/secret/mystery) is the understanding of Siva as formless space (ether). To the right of the Nataraja icon hangs a curtain. When performing the pooja (worship), the officiating Dikshitar draws back this curtain to reveal an empty space. All one can see are vertical strands of golden Bilva leaves, garlanding a ‘nothingness’.  Holding up the traditional offering of lamps to the garland, the Dikshitar exhorts the devotees to gaze and contemplate on this ‘nothingness’; he explains that the Bilva leaf, associated with Siva, is symbolic of the veil of false consciousness that comes in the way of our realizing the essence of God, namely that God is One and Formless.

Chidambaram is reputedly one of the only Hindu temples that counts Muslims among its devotees, as the Chidambara Rahasyam is consonant with what Islam teaches its own followers about the nature of the “true God”.

The uniqueness of Siva-Nataraja at Chidambaram goes further.  Nataraja relates to his devotees not by evoking authority, fear, or craven supplication, but by transporting devotees to a state of love and ecstasy. My earliest sense of Nataraja as love, came from listening to my mother speak of her experience of growing up with the legend of Nataraja. Born in Chidambaram into a family that had a centuries-old tradition as major patrons of the temple,  my mother had been brought up on stories of the divine acts of grace believed to have taken place in the temple, bestowed on those who lost themselves in their ecstatic love for Siva. Persons of her generation also grew up learning to sing the beautiful Tamil poetry – Thevaram – created by the Nayanmar poets in the Chidambaram temple in praise of Siva, hymns that even to this day are regularly sung in the temple. My mother often described to me what it felt to be part of congregations of devotees who would go into states of ecstasy in their complete identification with their dancing Lord, to the accompaniment of the Thevaram songs and the powerful temple bells. My mother is given to colourful hyperbole, which makes her a charming and entertaining raconteur. But I know from experience that at the core of each of her embellished descriptions lie honestly held truths. When she prayed aloud at bed-time, I never heard her ask anything of Nataraja, she never made any demands… All she communicated with him was happiness and love, and in turn felt blessed with a sense of fulfillment.

After my mother, the person in whom I sensed this was Umanatha Dikshitar, priest/custodian of the temple, whom we met during our recent visit to Chidambaram….He spoke to us about the temple and its history. He also spoke about his own life and personal growth, all of it inextricably linked with Nataraja’s grace…. his face softening and melting, his eyes taking on a faraway look of tenderness when speaking of life under the protective shelter of Nataraja…

When we left Chidambaram, it was with the feeling of having stepped briefly into a tiny cosmos that had once been the ‘centre of the universe’ (another meaning of the name ‘Chidambaram’),  but is now balanced at the edge of relevance within a changed world…a magnificent temple with its distinctive symbolisms, of which the most unique is a dynamic vision of the world as interconnected by love and absence of fear;   a tiny community of custodians struggling to preserve an ancient and endangered tradition of worship and temple governance;   a celebration of the arts as the core of the spiritual quest…

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